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Plant-Based Sources of Calcium for Strong Bones

Women of a certain age are often reminded to beware of osteoporosis which can lead to bone fractures. The risk of fracturing thinning or brittle bones because of a little tumble is real but the fear doesn't have to be if we focus on good nutrition and lifestyle choices.

First things first. Well-nourished bodies generally need less external support than ones that are meeting their nutritional needs. A well-balanced, plant-based pattern of eating provides vitamins, minerals, and important elements that not only give us abundant nutrition but can heal us as well. Always talk with your doctor about your health questions and concerns, but if you're looking for natural ways to support bone health–at any age–here's some information to get you started.

What is calcium, and why is it important?

Calcium is the most common mineral in the body and is one of the minerals responsible for strengthening our bones and teeth. It also assists in blood clotting, allows our muscles to relax, regulates metabolism, and helps our nerves transmit messages. Consuming optimum levels of calcium may also help prevent high blood pressure. All pretty important stuff!

Once upon a time, we believed that the best way to get calcium was through dairy, most often, cow's milk. And once upon a time, milk–and dairy, were believed to be healthy, essential dietary choices. As science and our understanding of nutrition evolve, we learn. We now know that not only is dairy a source of dangerous saturated fat that raises cholesterol and can lead to heart disease–among other problems, like prostate and breast cancer, but we've also learned much about plant-based sources of calcium.

Thankfully, these sources are right under our noses! Foods like dark leafy greens, sesame seeds, blackstrap molasses, and beans are just a few. The chart below shows how much calcium is in some common plant-based/vegan foods:

Tips for getting more calcium from plants:

  • Get some sunlight. Vitamin D, most easily absorbed through the skin on a sunny day, helps us absorb calcium from the foods we eat. Check your levels in your next blood workup and take a vitamin D supplement if necessary to ensure you’re getting enough of this superstar vitamin.

  • Eat dark, leafy greens daily. Kale, napa cabbage, bok choy, collard greens, and others are high in calcium and taste great, too. Because some minerals will be lost in the cooking water when boiling, try steaming, sautéing, cooking them in a soup or stew, or adding them to smoothies. One note about spinach, great for iron but not so much for calcium as certain compounds called oxalates hold on tightly to it.

  • Choose tofu set with calcium. If you include tofu in your diet, seek out tofu that’s coagulated with calcium sulfate: check the label to be sure. Depending on the brand, the calcium present in each serving can be as high as 120mg to 600mg.

  • Consume calcium-fortified non-dairy milks and juices. There are many brands on the market to choose from if you want the extra boost.

  • Include calcium powerhouse foods in your diet. Look for recipes with ingredients like blackstrap molasses, dried figs, sesame seeds, and almond butter, for example. Use the chart and seek out new ways to include these foods in your diet.

  • And be aware of habits and choices that steal your calcium. Smoking, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and consuming too much salt all put a damper on calcium absorption. 

Don't forget calcium's BFF: Magnesium!

Calcium can't do its job without magnesium. Some people think of magnesium as a mineral essential for relaxation and avoiding muscle cramps, but it also plays a critical role in many functions like: helping our bodies absorb calcium, getting calcium out of the blood and tissues back into the bones, suppressing hormones that break down bone, converting vitamin D into its active form for calcium absorption, and helping new bone to form. The richest food sources of magnesium are nuts, seeds, legumes, green leafy vegetables like kale and collards, whole grains, and avocados.

The good news is that eating a wide and colorful variety of plant-based foods is a reliable and natural approach to healthy bones. Check out a one-pot dinner recipe I taught in a Strong Bones and Body class.

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